Monday, 13 March 2017




Welcome to my final post for Musings. I would like to take the opportunity to thank our Editor-in-Chief, Natania Sherman, my fellow writers, Madeline Smolarz for getting me started, and of course all of you lovely readers.

This segment of Musings Abroad brings us again to a long-standing landmark of Saint Petersburg- St. Isaac’s Cathedral. A little background information: Peter the Great ordered the construction of the Cathedral at the turn of the 18th century. The current site is the Cathedral’s fifth incarnation, consecrated on May 30th, Peter the Great’s birthday, in 1858. St. Isaac’s took 40 years to complete and required nearly one million labourers. Having survived the Siege of Leningrad and the anti-religious ideologies of the Soviet Union, the Cathedral is a testament to Saint Petersburg’s turbulent past.

St. Isaac's imposing footprint by night. Photo Credit: Stephanie Read, 2016.
The Cathedral is an architectural marvel. The central dome is one of the largest in the world; artisans embedded 100,000 clay pots within the dome to enhance insulation and acoustics. Sixty workers died painting the dome gold due to the mixture’s high mercuric content. The foundations rest on 10,000 pine logs necessary to stabilize them over the marshy topography of the land running along the River Neva. The Cathedral is adorned with 112 Finnish granite columns; the portico columns weigh 114 tonnes each. The French architect Montferrand built everything in the Cathedral on a massive, awe-inducing scale; from the soaring domes and shining Afghani Lazurite and Ural Malachite altar columns, to the towering mosaic icons that took over 60 years to complete. Stark and overshadowing from the exterior, the Cathedral doors open to invite the visitor into the bosom of the traditional icon.

Stephanie in front of the gigantic bronze doors designed by the Italian-Russian sculptor Ivan Vitali, inspired by the Florence Baptistery.  Vitali also designed the fountain in front of the Bolshoi (big) Theatre. Photo Credit: Stephanie Read, 2016.
St. Isaac’s is a relative stone’s throw away from the former principal home of the Tsar and his family, as well as the aristocratic neighbourhoods. The Cathedral stood as a beacon of Imperialist power. Peter the Great was highly interested in employing European (especially French and Italian) architects and artists in order to build a truly ‘European’ city. After the October Revolution, the Church and State were separated; in 1922, the government removed several tonnes of gold, silver, gems as well as the bells from St. Isaac’s in order to finance feeding the poor. The Cathedral closed in 1928, and three years later it re-opened as the Leningrad Museum of Anti-Religion. 

Inside the Cathedral. Notice the green (Ural Malachite) and blue (Afghan Lazurite) columns flanking the main altar. Photo Credit: Stephanie Read, 2016.
The Soviet government transformed St. Isaac’s cathedral into an allegory for the decadence and corruption of Tsarist Russia, and, by a long extension, religion generally. Interpretive materials and tour guides depicted every aspect of the Cathedral as a symbol of opulence, wastefulness and violence. Hundreds of plated gold sculptures, mosaic floors and gilded altars were juxtaposed against the poverty of the peasants. Interestingly, the Soviet government utilized various strategies and vehicles of interpretation which we see in contemporary museums, albeit for the purpose of conveying its political ideologies to a vast audience.

Looking heavenward into the dome; although they resemble paintings, many of the illustrations have been replaced with intricate mosaic. Note the ring of golden angels at the base of the rotunda. Photo Credit: Stephanie Read, 2016.
The Museum of Anti-Religion enjoyed high visitor numbers. Factory workers and tradespeople would organize to visit the Museum together. Visits to the Museum and similar institutions were incorporated into school curricula. Displays included a maintained narrative of the ‘development’ of religion since ancient times, highlighting instances of violence and oppression in the name of organized religion, from the biblical slavery of the Israelite people by the Ancient Egyptians, to the role of the clergy in their support of the Tsar (and the attempted subjugation of the peasantry) during the Russian Revolution. 

Looking into the rotunda from an upper outdoor walkway.  Note that every angel is posed differently. The angels are only millimeters thick and very light, gilded using a method called "galvanoplasty". Photo Credit: Stephanie Read, 2016.

These displays attempted to ‘talk’ to visitors. Rather than allow visitors to make their own conclusions in the exhibition halls, museum operators included a range of interpretive materials such as text labels, maps, images, and testaments in order to effectively convey the Museum’s message. The use of interpretive strategies was not at all limited to within the walls of St. Isaac’s; institutions across Russia widely adopted such methods, intent as they were on reforming and educating the peasantry while promoting the government’s most valued ideals.

A close-up on the decoration of the ceiling and walls, a chandelier, and over-the-top gilded Corinthian columns. much of which had to be painstakingly restored after the Second World War. Photo Credit: Stephanie Read, 2016.
In 1937, St. Isaac’s became an art history museum, quite possibly due to Stalin’s interest in making peace with Russian religious communities on the eve of the Second World War. Bombing, shelling and lack of care during the Second World War greatly damaged the Cathedral; the effects of strafing are still visible on the marble columns and steps of the building’s exterior. The Cathedral housed the priceless collections of the various city-palaces surrounding Leningrad. Camouflaged domes and boarded-up windows discouraged German bombing. Twenty years passed after the Second World War before conservators and craftspeople could complete restoration on the Cathedral. 

Conservators left the evidence of bullet and shrapnel holes as a testament to the Cathedral's fraught history and Leningrad's heroic resistance. (for more information on the Siege, see my previous post here). Photo Credit: Stephanie Read, 2016.
Today, St. Isaac’s Cathedral continues to be a state museum, however any sign of the previous museums under Socialism are gone. Worship takes place in side chapels, as well as on special holidays. Tourists and locals alike stop to bow their heads until they gently touch the glass panes protecting priceless icons. Recently, there was a proposed reinstatement of St. Isaac’s as a Cathedral following a politically-backed return to Russian Orthodoxy. Millions of visitors enter the Cathedral every year, and so many people have argued against dissolving the Museum for fear of losing accessibility to the Cathedral. Considering its inspiring beauty and its entrenched status as a symbol of Saint Petersburg, it is not difficult to understand why!

Thank you for reading... and never stop musing! Photo Credit: Stephanie Read, 2016.

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